The future of researchers

9 December 2015
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

I was asked by the organised of the forum on the Future of research in 21st Century to prepare a short presentation on:

How would a shift in research practice, applied in the social and digital environment, impact on the capabilities of researchers in the future?  Applying holistic and analytical approaches, or mixed methodologies, in a digital age.

I prepared a short speech and a video since I was not going to be able to join the live sessions.

The new researcher needs at least three skills:

  1. They must be good researchers –that is a given
  2. They must be good managers –at least at the level of the research project
  3. They must be good communicators – at least internally but increasingly towards their intended audiences

Simon Maxwell, former Director of the Overseas Development Institute, would say that they also have to be great networkers and fixers –referring to the need understand and operate the political levers of change.

These two, however, I accept, can be harder for some people to master and could be beyond what a standard job description should expect from a researcher.

But good research, good management, and good communications should be, in my view, non-negotiable.

Being good communicators

Lets focus on good communication for research.

There are three aspects to this issue:

First, researchers must have good interpersonal communication skills

These are harder to master but can be taught and should be taught at university. Graduates should be able to develop and communicate their arguments clearly to their peers and to others who are not familiar with their work or with their subjects of study.

In other words, they must be strong editors of their own work; ensuring that it is appropriate to the audiences they intend to reach.

These skills are crucial not only to influence others about the merits of our ideas but also to lead and work in teams –often with people with different interests and skills.

Second, researchers must have a good knowledge of all the communication channels and tools available as well as how to use them

This does not mean that all researchers should have the same skills as a professional publications manager, an events manager, a media officer, or a digital communications manager. But they should know about and understand these roles and the tools that can be used in each of these communication channels.

They should, too, be able to produce and use some of the most basic ones under each channel. For instance, 1) a literature review, a policy brief, a working paper; 2) write a blog post, manage a twitter handle, produce static data visualisations using tools like, and set-up a Google hangout to stream a workshop; 3) produce a public event and write its report; and 4) conduct a short interview for radio or tv or even record and edit a video or podcast.

This is not a message that my generation would like to hear but it is not far-fetch to expect that younger researchers –those entering the sector today- won’t have these skills already.

Third, new researchers should be expected to have the capacity to make strategic choices about hot to use the various channels and tools at their disposal

Here is where the concept of communications as orchestra can be of help.

Ideally, a research centre will have a head of communications in charge of this. But in reality most communication activities are and will be conducted at the level of the research project and of researchers.

Researchers must know how to maximize the impact that various communications tools have by combining them –very much in the same way as a conductor does with an orchestra.

The objective is simple: to keep the audience engaged or, in terms more appropriate to us, keep our ideas on the public agenda for as long as possible in preparation for a possible (only possible, let’s be honest) window of opportunity.

This capacity to make strategic choices can be taught but is more likely to be developed through practice. And this means that research cannot be thought of as separate of communication.

There is something about the disruptive role of digital channels and tools that affects this. 

To achieve this, to maximize the exposure of our ideas, digital channels and tools offer opportunities that few researchers today take full advantage of.

Digital channels make it possible to structure this strategic combination of communication tools.

A simple (and free) Eventbrite page or a WordPress site can allow a small team of researchers –or even a single researcher- to bring together a range of publications, videos, engagement activities such as events, online discussions on Twitter or Facebook, and efforts to reach out to the media.

There are digital tools for almost every communication objective: organizing events, sending out invitations, writing and publishing, writing event reports, announcements, hosting events, monitoring the impact of our research, etc.

In fact, there are digital tools for almost every research and management objective, too. It is possible to run an entire research project online –even a research organisation.

But this will come at a cost to old and current research cultures.

I could talk for hours about this but I’ll focus on one aspect of this disruption, alone. This one relates to the capacity of researchers to take full advantage of all the instruments in the orchestra.

The new researcher has to be comfortable with criticism and even with being wrong.

Digital research and communications are not separate things, anymore. They are parts of the same whole. One can generate digital communication content while doing research (e.g. filming or recording interviews with informants). And one can do research while doing communications (e.g. filming and streaming an event)

Digital is ongoing, therefore. It forces the researcher to communicate right from the start: this is what I want to research should be one of the first “publications” of a research project.

Digital is also open. Research can no longer be done in private –away from the prying eyes of peers, funders, and their audiences.

Digital is reciprocal. The most popular digital tools punish broadcast-only users. They demand engagement. This culture extends to how people share data, ideas, and advice online. Researchers are now potential members of an infinite number of epistemic communities that can pop-up in response to a simple Tweet asking as question or for help.

Digital is also flexible. We hear stories of cyber-bullying all the time. Of huge online fails that haunt people forever. But these are the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, digital allows researchers to engage with their audiences in a way that contributes to a co-generation of new knowledge.

Generally, it allows researchers to share ideas and receive useful feedback. It lets them go back on their analysis and correct mistakes. Digital tools make it easier to access information invaluable for research.

To me, all this means that researchers need to be open to criticism. They must learn to take themselves and their community less seriously. And this is easier said that done.

Maybe the new generation of researchers will find this easier. They will have grown up using these tools and with a different experience of privacy.

They will know that it is possible to edit a blog post or add a note to clarify an earlier correction. They will know that asking for help publicly does not mean that their ideas will be stolen.

And it will be obvious to them that a Tweet with a link to a blog that has a link to a working paper is more effective that a working paper on its own.

As a way of concluding this short talk, I should say that all this has an implication on research organisations themselves.

Changes in the research culture will affect hiring practices, the roles and responsibilities of various members of staff, leadership roles in particular, and governance structures as a consequence.

If the research project output changes to reflect this digital first approach then the research project design and management will have to adapt. This will have consequences on how funding is sought, awarded and managed.

And if funding models change, inevitably, so will business models of research organisations.

Fun times ahead!